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Robert Cassidy’s White House Summit Blog

Robert Cassidy’s White House Summit Blog

By By Robert Cassidy, Editor-in-Chief | August 11, 2010

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Tuesday, January 24, dawned bright and brisk in Washington, as I walked the 10 or so blocks from the Comfort Inn at 13th and M ($125+tax a night, free high-speed Internet and breakfast) to the White House Conference Center at 726 Jackson Place, just across Lafayette Park from the White House. Click here for the site plan.

Some 200 federal executives and I were greeted by a half-dozen bored limo drivers and Secret Service agents at the security gate. Even government employees with high security clearances had to go through a full screening; we later learned that the prime minister of Pakistan, Shaukat Aziz, was meeting that day with President Bush at the White House. Despite the delay, Ed Piñero, the Federal Environmental Executive, was able to start the program only three minutes late. At 9:03 a.m., January 24, 2006, the first White House Summit on Federal Sustainable Buildings was officially under way.

The White House Conference Center is a restored building (Jackie Kennedy is credited with saving it) with terrible acoustics, poor access, dreadful ventilation (just right for my sinus cold)—in other words, a perfect candidate for a LEED-EB makeover. As our home for the next two days, it was cozy enough, even though some attendees had to watch the main proceedings in a separate room via a TV hookup.

The audience of nearly 200 was geared up for the main event of the day, the formal signing of the Memorandum of Understanding on Federal Leadership in High Performance and Sustainable Buildings. The MOU is only 4½ pages in length, but it had taken the better part of two years for dozens of federal staffers to work it and rework it into a form that all the key agencies and departments could live with. Notable among those who championed the MOU is the Energy Dept.’s Beverly Dyer, a truly dedicated public servant at the Federal Energy Management Program; she has shepherded the federal Interagency Sustainability Working Group (ISWG) from humble beginnings several years ago, to a membership today of some 300 mid-level staff from dozens of agencies and departments. Other key actors in getting the MOU through the bureaucracy were Cynthia Vallina, an Energy Division procurement analyst in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and Don Horn, the GSA’s “green giant” (he’s 6-5 or so). As Piñero noted, the MOU would never have happened without the work of the ISWG’s Dyer and Company. Click here for more on the ISWG:

Unveiling the mysteries of the MOU
To the 99% of Americans who live outside the Beltway, a “memorandum of understanding” may seem almost arcane, but such a document is the grease that keeps the federal machinery clicking. The MOU on sustainability provides a set of guidelines by which the federal establishment must interact with regard to “high-performance” and “sustainable” buildings. (The term “green” was viewed as ambiguous and is not used in the MOU.) It commits the 17 signatory agencies and departments to consider sustainable design in their buildings. Yes, it’s just a piece of paper, but it represents interagency consensus, and that’s just how things get done in Washington. That’s why Building Design & Construction, in the Action Plan of our 2004 White Paper, "Progress Report on Sustainability,” editorialized in favor of such an MOU (and, in fact, why we pushed for a White House Summit on Sustainability).

Click here for a PDF of the MOU.

Click here for a downloadable PDF of BD&C’s “Progress Report on Sustainability” White Paper.

The MOU Moment
The signing ceremony itself took on an air of celebration, as signatories from each agency or department were introduced by Piñero, who handed them the official pen. The MOU signing ceremony represented a symbolic milestone in the history of the green building movement. “As federal employees and Americans, we should be proud of what we’ve done today,” said Piñero, a sentiment that his audience seconded with an enthusiastic and sincere round of applause.

A brief note about Federal Environmental Executive Edwin Piñero
I met Ed Piñero in September 2004, just days before he was appointed Federal Environmental Executive by President Bush. He had been brought into the Administration by Tom Ridge, the first Homeland Security secretary, having served as Pennsylvania’s environmental sustainability director when Ridge was governor. Piñero grew up in a poor family in the South Bronx, but got into Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts (of which both President Bush and his father are alums). From there, on to a bachelor’s at the State University of New York and a master’s from Texas A&M, both in geology. Over the next two decades, he worked for Mobil Oil and several environmental firms, and later established his own consulting firm.

Piñero was tapped in June 2004 to temporarily fill the vacancy left by then-Federal Environmental Executive John Howard, a close ally of President Bush, who wanted to return to his law practice in Austin, Texas. He slept on a friend’s couch for three months and commuted weekends back to his family home in Lancaster, Pa., until the “acting” was taking off his title and he was named FEE.

With only a tiny budget and a small staff (often bolstered by college interns and temporary recruits from EPA and DOE), Piñero has managed to fill the big shoes left behind by John Howard. In his quiet way, he has learned to navigate the choppy waters of Washington politics and has become remarkably adroit at captaining the Federal Green Building Council, a group of senior-level executives from key branches with a stake in constructing sustainable buildings; forming personal links to the Office of Management & Budget, which controls the federal purse; and acting as an early and faithful supporter of the Memorandum of Understanding that was signed January 24.

Piñero clearly idolizes George W. Bush, and he seems genuinely humbled that a kid from the South Bronx could be part of the Bush Administration. At one point in the proceedings, he turned to the audience at the White House Summit and unabashedly declared, “I’m very proud to be working for the President—especially this president.”

Nearly three years into the game, he’s still weekend commuting the 125 miles between the District and Lancaster, Pa.

Click here for more on the Federal Green Building Council. Click here for more about OFEE and a bio of Edwin Piñero.

With that aside, let’s return to the events of the White House Summit.

Federal Environmental Executive Edwin Piñero (third from left) with representatives from most of the 17 federal agencies that signed the Memorandum of Understanding on “Federal Leadership in High Performance and Sustainable Buildings.” The signing ceremony was held January 24 at the White House Summit on Federal Sustainable Buildings in Washington, D.C.

CEQ’s Hannegan on the MOU, federal workplace
Bryan Hannegan, White House Council on Environmental Quality, reiterated the oft-quoted statistic that buildings in the U.S. consume 1/3 of the nation’s energy and 2/3 of its electricity. He noted that the MOU signed by 17 federal agencies will help those building new federal structures to have a case for such improvements as waterless urinals, smart landscaping, and what he called smart design—improvements that could lead to 20-30% savings off the operations of a building.

Hannegan stressed the importance of numbers in the current administration: “It’s very important to focus on the metrics. The President likes to know about measurements of success.”

Also crucial: greater integration of public health and safety issues in workspaces for federal employees—“not only better energy savings, but a better environment, and happier workers,” said Hannegan. He stressed that “we need federal buildings that last, but that also are good for the people who are working inside.”

Surgeon General Carmona on indoor environmental quality
“We’re a nation that doesn’t spend a lot on prevention,” said Vice Admiral Richard H. Carmona. While noting that the U.S. devotes 15% of GDP to healthcare, the U.S. Surgeon General decried the sad fact that “much of what we spend on is preventable, from obesity to drunk driving.”

The Surgeon General also noted his personal concern about healthcare disparities. “Puerto Ricans have the highest asthma incidence in the world,” he said. “I grew up in Spanish Harlem, with two brothers and a sister, ” he told the White House Summit of Federal Sustainable Buildings on January 24. “My parents had substance abuse problems, and our apartment was infested with roaches, mice, garbage. My brothers and my sister and myself, there wasn’t a month that we weren’t at some county hospital with some wheezing problem. It robbed me and my brothers and sister of a lot. So I see things now that I never appreciated before: the quality of the disease burden.”

I don’t think I was the only person in the room who was moved by Admiral Carmona’s very personal statement. It put the real purpose of the green building movement in perspective.

The Surgeon General also took “building officials” to task for being too “isolated” from the health consequences of the decisions they make about building quality. “As I look at the conclusions in the literature, ” said Carmona, “there’s a very strong basis for this [i.e., a link between poor indoor environmental quality and health problems]. Individuals today spend 85-90% of their time indoors. We need to go beyond lead poisoning and smoking, to look at other issues and how they interrelate.”

Carmona said the summary report of a conference on IAQ held January 12-13, 2005, is being finalized, and he anticipated the full report will be issued this year.

Harvard's Spengler offers advice to the construction industry
Dr. Jack Spengler of the Harvard School of Public Health gave the U.S. construction industry this prescription for improving the IEQ of America’s built environment: 1) make buildings that can be readily cleaned; 2) pay attention to chemical emissions and potential chemical reactions; 3) improve air cleaning and decontamination; 4) hire subcontractors who know how to integrate systems; 5) use LEED and ASHRAE as minimum standards. EPA’s Luna issues warning about water shortages, cites benefits of LEED

“Although water in the U.S. is very inexpensive, that’s not going to be the case for very long,” said Luis Luna, assistant administrator in the EPA Office of Administration and Resources Management.

Addressing some 200 government officials at the first White House Summit on Federal Sustainable Buildings, Luna pledged that the EPA is committed to the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating program. “LEED gives us a comprehensive toolkit,” he said. “EPA has committed to seeking the highest possible LEED ratings in the buildings we occupy.”

Luna cited the EPA’s Denver facility (LEED Silver), whose energy consumption is 35% below ASHRAE 90.1, and the Kansas City Science & Technology Center, which uses only 60% of the energy of the EPA facility in Research Triangle Park, N.C.—“all without a negative impact on our employees.”

Luna issued a word of caution to his colleagues in government: “Beware of greenwash. Overselling is just as detrimental as opening a window and letting money pour out. We need to be persistent in accounting for these [energy] savings. ”

Next up for EPA: a new 654,000 square foot, 12-story headquarters office in Arlington, Va. “We’re going for LEED Silver or maybe Gold,” and the building is programmed to save $129,000 in energy costs, said Luna. Click here for information on the new EPA HQ.

GSA’s Winstead: ‘Reallocate funds for underutilized government buildings’
David L. Winstead, the recently appointed Public Buildings Service commissioner, said the GSA is “working with OMB and Congress to enact property enhancement.” Through the Federal Real Property Council, Winstead is proposing that proceeds derived from the sale of underutilized federal properties (about 5% of government-owned or leased buildings, or about 25,000 structures) be reallocated to the Federal Building Fund for use in other projects. Currently, any money derived from such sales goes into the national debt reduction fund.

Winstead said the GSA is seeking ways to improve workplace conditions for federal employees, such as leasing space in buildings near moderately priced restaurants or with retail shopping within walking distance. “We have to look at the broader sustainable development issues, such as transit subsidies, telework, and work/life balance issues,” he said. “Factors like daylight have an impact on productivity.” GSA and other government agencies “need to raise our sights beyond square footage and dollars, to make a positive difference in American neighborhoods,” he said. Click here for more on the GSA’s Public Buildings Service. Click here for GSA organization chart.

Day II Drama: The Executive Branch Management Scoreboard
The most anticipated event of the second day was the release of draft scorecards that measure agency performance in energy, transportation, and environmental management against the requirements of various “Greening the Government” Executive Orders (13101, 13123, 13148, and 13149) and the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct).

This is a fairly new exercise, only in its second year; it is part of the Bush Administration’s effort to quantify performance. (The Government Performance and Results Act, or GPRA, and the President’s Management Agenda, or PMA, are other manifestations of efforts to isolate “outcome-oriented measures,” according to NASA’s Olga M. Dominguez, Deputy Assistant Administrator, Office of Management Systems.)

For each management scorecard—energy, transportation, environmental—the agency or department earns a red (“noncompliant”), yellow (“some progress”), or green (“compliant”) sticker.

Here’s what the Energy Management Scorecard looks like.

Here’s what the Transportation Management Scorecard looks like.

Here’s what the Environmental Management Scorecard looks like.

So, how is the federal government doing?
David Anderson, OMB Associate Director for Resource Programs, gave some general findings: 1) six agencies met the FY 2005 goal of 30% reduction of energy use required under EO 13123; 2) the federal government reached 2.98% of its FY 2005 energy needs through renewable sources, beating the goal of 2.5% contained in EPAct; 3) 10 of 17 federal agencies present at the Summit met the goal of improving fleet mileage by 3 mpg (vs. 1999), as required by EO 13140; 4) all 17 agencies had green procurement programs in place (EO 13101).

A tense moment, as Executive Management Scorecards are handed out
OMB’s David Anderson then handed out sealed envelopes with each agency’s energy, transportation, and environmental management scorecards, and agencies got to look at them (in draft form: the agencies still have time for comment). NASA’s Dominguez got a compliment for the space agency’s performance, but for others in the room there was a certain degree of anxiety in their faces as their envelopes were handed to them.

Will “Greening the Government” Executive Orders and EPAct be reconciled?
One Navy officer in the audience asked Robert L. Sandoli, an OMB program examiner who keeps the management scorecards, whether the three Executive Orders would be reconciled with the 2005 Energy Policy Act (EPAct). “That is under consideration right now,” Sandoli said. You heard it here first.

Click here for the EPAct.

DOI’s Lynn Scarlett: LEED not always fair to rural projects
Deputy Secretary of the Interior Lynn Scarlett had some cautionary words about LEED as it affects DOI projects. “There are a lot of LEED credits that don’t work for Interior”—for example, points for locating near mass transit location, or heritage properties, “where we can’t put in new windows or carpeting.”

Scarlett told the Summit attendees that “incentives matter, but they may not always align with sustainability.” She pointed out that most cities charge for stormwater based on frontage; now, some are charging on the basis of permeable surface (paving, rooftops, etc.)

“Sustainability is not using a list of new technologies and materials,” Deputy Secretary of the Interior Lynn Scarlett said. “It is better thought of as a design framework—a thought process, where environmental attributes are considered as part of overall design considerations, within relevant cost parameters.”

Jiminy makes sure every Disney facility is cricket-friendly.

Jiminy Cricket meets the bureaucracy
The highlight of Day II of the White House Summit on Federal Sustainable Buildings was a presentation by Kym Murphy, SVP of Corporate Environmental Policy at Walt Disney Co. He’s been with Disney and Disney Imagineering for more than 25 years, and was responsible for designing and building the Living Seas exhibit at Epcot.

You could tell right away that Murphy wasn’t a government suit. He was the only person in attendance wearing a sweater—not to mention tinted sunglasses. The audience loved his casual California style, his warm humor, and his inside stories about the Mouse Empire.

As to Disney’s approach to sustainability, Murphy noted that the company has not sought LEED certification for its buildings. “We use our own standard, ” said Murphy. “We take LEED and go up the next step, to such things as sub-metering. ” Disney created its own proprietary Green Building Goals & Guidelines, now in its second edition. “It’s regularly updated by our engineers, designers, and procurement people, ” Murphy told his audience of federal employees.

Under Disney’s Project Conscience, project managers must demonstrate how sustainable design can save costs on a life cycle basis. This is being implemented at Hong Kong Disney, the first Disney project where sustainability was employed right from the start.

Other sustainable design and operations strategies at Disney include: use of low-VOC materials; Green Lights and Energy Star appliances; sub-metering (“This allows us to ‘tune’ a building’s energy use,” said Murphy; it is now being applied to water use); recycling programs for guests and employees (“We really love the letters from kids telling us how much they recycled”); water use reduction (“We recycle 11 million gallons a day at Walt Disney World”); and sustainable sourcing.

Murphy’s issued this recommendation to the government officials at the summit: “Sustainable development must be adopted by and committed to by senior executives.” To which I would add: That advice applies to both the public and private sector.

For being good Mouseketeers, we all got caps with Jiminy on them. Full disclosure: I glommed two for my grandchildren.

Click here and here for more on Disney corporate environmentalism

What next for sustainable design and construction?
First, it demonstrated how far the federal government has progressed in green building—even if they insisted on calling it “high performance and sustainable” building. Certainly it was the case that those government officials present at the summit were pretty much all members of the choir, but it was remarkable to hear them sing the praises of their agencies and departments with regard to their accomplishments in implementing sustainable design and construction.

Who would have predicted five years ago that the Defense Department would be one of the most aggressive green building entities in America? Or even that the General Services Administration would cast off its sometimes archaic standard procedures and embrace LEED as heartily as it has—for better or worse. With its purchasing power and political leverage, the federal government has become arguably the prime mover in green building in this country, perhaps even superseding the U.S. Green Building Council itself. I don’t know whether to be elated, or frightened out of my wits.

Second, the summit reinforced a fact that many in the environmental movement (and I include myself here) have trouble swallowing: that, despite the current administration’s generally abysmal record on the environment, the Bush White House has somehow allowed the green building efforts begun during the Clinton years to sneak under the radar. Although the administration has cut deeply into the budgets of agencies like DOE’s Federal Energy Management Program, Mr. Bush has not rescinded the key Executive Orders put into effect by his predecessor—and the bureaucracy, particularly at the mid-level where the real spadework gets done, somehow keeps plugging along. As taxpayers and citizens, we owe these civil servants a great deal of gratitude for fighting the good fight under adverse conditions.

Moreover, it could be argued—and many of the loyal appointees at the summit certainly tried to make this case—that, by attaching rigorous metrics and reporting requirements to the Clinton-era Executive Orders, the Bush Administration has made them more effective. Now, every agency and department gets measured once a year by the OMB on energy, transportation, and environmental performance, and they take those ratings—red, yellow, or green—very seriously, as they should: in some respects, their jobs depend on them.

In a way, it makes sense, because the current administration, harking back to the main theme of the Reagan era, wants to decrease the size of the federal government. If one manifestation of lesser size is a smaller (and more measurable) energy budget for federal buildings, that’s acceptable to the Administration. As long as the champions of green building within the bureaucracy keep emphasizing the measurable dollar savings of their efforts, the Administration will probably go along with the program.

Finally, I left Washington with renewed hope for the green building movement. It was gratifying to witness the degree of innovativeness, technical sophistication, and unrelenting dedication that I saw in the people assembled at 726 Jackson Place over the course of those two days. It’s clear that many of our public servants in the federal establishment have gotten the message: The old ways of designing, constructing, and maintaining government buildings must be thrown out, and a new order must take their place. LEED has been the driving force thus far, but already the more experienced players within the bureaucracy recognize that LEED can take them only so far. A much more integrated approach, one that looks toward what the GSA’s Don Horn called “restorative design”—providing 100% benefit to the environment, with no damage or detriment to people—is called for.

Such a transformation will undoubtedly take time to formulate and implement. Then again, look how far we have come in just the last few years.—Robert Cassidy

Click here

for BD&C’s exclusive Special Report from the White House Summit.


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